Dave McEnery walked into a bicycle shop five years ago looking for a way to stay in shape. The 30-something former hockey player wasn't exactly a couch potato, but he knew that 240 pounds was too much weight to carry on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame.
"I left there with three bikes," said the 41-year-old Largo resident. "It didn't take long before I was hooked."
McEnery was no stranger to speed. He had done his share of motorcycle racing, but it wasn't until he stopped by his first criterium, or "crit," as it is known in cycling circles, that he learned just how fast a nonmotorized machine can go.
The term is used to describe a bicycle race that is held on a course over public roads closed to normal traffic, with a set number of laps. Think of it as a human-powered version of the Grand Prix that was just held on the streets of St. Petersburg.
"Once I knew that you could race bikes, it took me to a whole other level," said McEnery, who said he sold his $700 bike and bought a new one that cost nearly 10 times as much. "At my best, I probably got down to 155 pounds. I had been chunky my whole life, and cycling made me skinny."
Casual cycling is good for general fitness, but if you want to burn fat and get your heart really pumping, ride fast and hard. Last weekend, hundreds of the state's top professional and recreational cyclists gathered in Tampa for the Gasparilla Criterium & Cycling Festival, part of the USA CRITS Championship Series.
"It is not something that you just do casually," said Andres Munera, a 42-year-old Tampa man who started riding competitively about 10 years ago. "But it is very exhilarating. You are out there just centimeters away from another guy, going 30 miles an hour, taking tight turns. You just can't be afraid to crash."
Val Tavanese, owner of Outspokin Bicycles on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater, said racing is a natural progression for many cyclists.
"People often start off with an entry-level bike, let's say for under $1,500," she said. "Then the more they ride, and the better they get, the more they want a better bike."
Once cyclists feel the need for speed, well, there's no saying when they will hit the brakes.
"You can spend up to $15,000 if you want all the latest technology," said Tavanese, 50, of Safety Harbor. "But in the end, what really matters is not how much you spend but who's pushing the pedals."
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You won't find the top-end road bike brands — Giant, Cervelo, Scott, BMC and Trek — at big-box stores. If you want to ride with the fast kids on Saturday morning, you need to pick up your machinery at a specialty shop.
"The industry has changed so much in recent years," said Mark Yeager, who has been riding and racing for nearly 40 years. "In the old days you bought a bike and then tried to make it fit. Now we fit you and then find the bike."
Yeager, who owns St. Pete Bicycle and Fitness on Fourth Street, hangs out with some serious gearheads. A past president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club, the 55-year-old road racer said newcomers shouldn't be afraid of the sport.
"If you've got the right-fitting bike and you learn the proper technique, the learning curve is very fast," he said. "On a typical Saturday morning you might find 400 or 500 riders gathered down on the waterfront getting ready to ride."
Riders who want to cruise at 18 to 20 mph will take off in one direction, and those who want to go 20 to 22 mph will head the other way.
"There is a group for riders of every skill level," Yeager said. "And people find it rewarding because they move up."
But don't expect to be signing up for the next "crit" in your first month.
"When it comes to speed, the last 2 or 3 percent is the hard part," Yeager said. "But that's what keeps the sport interesting."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.